Houseplants often are a designer’s secret weapon—pops of greenery can instantly elevate anybody’s home decor, no matter the style. But while a thriving plant can complete the look of any room, a dying one quickly becomes a depressing focal point.
What’s worse: Once you realize you have an unhappy houseplant, it can be surprisingly difficult to diagnose what’s wrong. Are you giving it too much water, or not enough? Does it need more light, or less?
Rather than letting you waste one more minute guessing what’s wrong, we’ve gathered up five of the most common ways people kill their houseplants—and how you can identify (and fix) the problem before it’s too late.
One of the most common downfalls of houseplants is underwatering. Whether you forgot to water it one week or just didn’t realize how much water your plant truly needs—underwatering happens.
Horticulturalist Andrew Gaumond, of Petal Republic, explains what underwatering looks like and how to fix it.
“The most probable cause of droopy leaves is lack of moisture in the soil base,” says Gaumond. “A moisture meter or probe—maybe even your fingers—are your best friends here to determine the moisture content around the base of the planter. If it’s bone-dry, it’s clear your plant is in need of a good drink.”
Another sign of underwatering is yellowing leaves.
“Yellowing leaves that feel a little crisp to the touch and are also potentially curling is another telltale sign your plant is underwatered,” Gaumond says.
If your plants look anything like this, check the soil to see how dry it is. If it feels dry, give your plants a good, long drink. Assuming you have drainage holes on your pot, try watering the plant until water runs out the bottom, then continue to monitor the soil to see how quickly it dries out again.
An overwatered plant can be hard to diagnose, since it looks a lot like an underwatered plant. But diagnose it you must—and fast, since overwatering is one of the easiest ways to kill your plants quickly.
“The most serious sign of an unhappy houseplant would be blackening or wilting leaves, which are often caused by chronic overwatering,” says Zachary Smith, arborist and president of Smith’s Pest Management.
“This is a common problem with houseplants, where the plant has too much water and the leaves are wilting or drooping because the roots are suffocating in standing water,” Smith explains.
If you’re facing droopy, blackened leaves right now, check the soil to see how wet it is. Be sure the plant has proper drainage (that is, a way to get rid of excess water) and let it dry out completely—for at least a week—before giving it any more water.
3. Inadequate light
If watering isn’t the issue, then the next likely cause for an unhappy houseplant is insufficient sunlight.
“Brown or yellow leaves may be a sign of insufficient light or nutrient deficiency,” says Smith.
One way to determine whether or not your houseplant is suffering from inadequate sunlight: Simply read up on it.
If you know the name of your plant, you can easily look up how many hours of sunlight it needs, and what kind (direct or indirect).
If you don’t know the name of your plant, check out this forum on Reddit. By posting a photo of your plant, others will help you identify what it is so you can research what it needs and place it in a brighter spot in your home.
But be forewarned: “It’s very hard to correct insufficient light issues, as most houseplants need more light than most houses can provide, with many houseplants on a slow decline from the day they’re purchased because of light levels.” Smith cautions.
If that’s the case, it might be time to bid adieu to your light-loving houseplant and opt for one that thrives in dimmer conditions.
4. Too much light
On the other hand, it may be that your houseplant is unhappy as a result of too much light. Here’s what that looks like.
“A plant receiving too much light might draw its leaves down around the pot as it tries to get away from the light,” says Lisa Eldred Steinkopf of The Houseplant Guru. “It also may be discolored and appear bleached out. Plants can actually be sunburned, just like us, and it shows up as dead patches of brown tissue on the leaves.”
If you see any of these symptoms, it might be time to relocate your plant to a different spot in the house. Again, spend some time reading up on your plant and be sure to note what kind of light it needs. For example, lots of indirect light is not the same as a few hours of direct sunlight. Get to know your plant’s needs, and make adjustments from there.
5. Environmental factors
Beyond watering and light issues, there are a few other things that can cause houseplants to die. Namely, environmental factors such as temperature and humidity levels. If a room is too cold, or a plant is drying out at rapid speed next to a heater, these could be reasons your plant isn’t doing so hot.
“Avoid cold drafts, hot air blowing on them from the furnace, letting them dry out completely, keeping them overly wet, too low or too high light, and low humidity,” suggests Steinkopf.
If this sounds like a tall order, it is. But by carefully choosing the best location for each of your houseplants (not just sticking them in some random corner), and reading up on what they need, you’ll have a much better chance at keeping them alive and healthy.
“The first thing is always to diagnose what the problem is and find the solution to fix it,” says Steinkopf. “Sometimes that isn’t possible, and it’s OK to have a plant die on your watch. That’s how we all learn. If you made mistakes, learn from them, and most importantly, don’t give up!”
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